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Hassan’s Tale, Part 15 – Buried Treasure

As I approached I slowed, and finally stopped at the driveway, in the exact spot where – long ago – our family car had exploded with my mother in it.

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Jamilah shook her head in wonderment. In 2002, when Hassan had been released from prison, she’d still been in high school. And yet Hassan had been been through so much already by that time. She wondered if he could ever truly relate to her on a personal level. Does he see me as an equal, she wondered? Or am I a child to him?

“What happened to my namesake?”Jamilah said. “To Jamil? Do you know?”

Hassan nodded. “I heard through the grapevine that he’s in a low security facility in Fort Worth.”

“You mean he’s still locked up?”

“What grapevine?” Muhammad asked.

“Ex-cons I’ve run into. You know Asante from the masjid?”

“Mm, yeah,” Layth said. “Built like a linebacker.”

Hassan nodded. “He was in El Reno. I’ve met others at the Oakland masjid and even on the street. I saw Cutter living in a homeless encampment in China Basin. He looked like a junkie. I rode by and he didn’t recognize me. I just kept going.”

“When will Jamil get out?” Jamilah asked.

“Allahu a’lam,” Hassan said. “Maybe never. He killed two men during a drug deal when he was eighteen, before he became Muslim. He has a life sentence.” 

“Oh.” Jamilah felt her heart sink. “That doesn’t seem fair. Don’t they take into account that he’s a different person now?”

“Jamil would disagree with you about it not being fair,” Hasan said. “He’d say that he took two human lives and that there’s never a day when he’s not conscious of that, and that ‘fair’ does not always apply in this dunya, and that the dunya is a prison for the believer in any case, so what’s one prison inside another? And he would say that in the end it’s in Allah’s hands, and Allah will do what He wills. When Allah wants Jamil out, he’ll be out.”

“I see why you wanted us to know about him,” Layth said.

“He was a second father to me,” Hassan said. “The day I got out he hugged me and said, ‘Remember, Allah is with you out there, just like He was with you in here. He cares about you. You have a purpose. Find it. When you’re out of ideas, ask Allah.’

I needed to hear that, because I had no life plan beyond finding whatever my father had left for me, if indeed he had left anything at all.

I arrived at the San Francisco airport and immediately caught a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles. I still wore the clothes I’d been arrested in – they’d been returned to me on my release – and they didn’t fit. I’d packed on seventy pounds of muscle in prison. My legs were tree trunks and my shoulders were bowling balls.” 

*** 

“You look like that now,” Muhammad said.

“No, I was bigger then. Seven years of lifting weights will do that. My pants were about to split, and my shirt was stretched across my chest. But I didn’t care.

On the bus, a man kept talking to himself, muttering about a yellow cat and how it was following him. Other passengers glanced at him in surreptitious concern, while others ignored him. As for me, I didn’t care.

In the seat in front of me, a baby cried. The mother sang a lullaby, but he continued bawling. I didn’t care.

The bus was air conditioned and grew chilly, but again, I didn’t care. None of that mattered. I was dazed, feeling like the world was a waking dream.

America itself – the land of my idyllic, if strange childhood – had seemed like a dream for so long. America was a distant memory of a land of ketchup, banana splits and building sand castles on the beach while Charlie tried to knock them down. A land of family. And of course, a land of imprisonment.

And now here I was, free to go and do as I wished. It didn’t seem real. I had a deep fear that it was literally a dream, and that I would wake up in my cramped cell in El Reno, hearing the six a.m. work alarm and the pounding of prisoners’ boots on the steel tiers outside. And if this wasn’t a dream, then surely the FBI would realize they had been duped, and that I was not in fact Hassan Amir. Any moment they would stop the bus and drag me off. They’d send me back to Turkey, where I would find myself once again in… that place.

The mother in front of me put her baby on her shoulder and patted him on the back, trying to burp him. He settled his big blue eyes on me and stopped crying. He regarded me, I imagined, with the same wonder with which I regarded him. I had not seen a baby in years. I’d forgotten how their eyes could be cherubic yet wise at the same time.

The baby gazed at me with a hint of a smile – I might have imagined it – and if anything his eyes grew larger, radiating wonder and total acceptance. Had my eyes ever been so guileless?

I looked into those big eyes, wide and deep as oceans, and he looked into mine, and the moment stretched into what seemed like minutes. Adults will meet your eyes for a moment then look away, but this baby held my gaze with innocent boldness. I began to feel that I was looking into his soul and he into mine. Would my inner reality frighten him?

As he continued to stare into my eyes, I had the feeling – for a moment – that we were one person, and I could hear his thoughts.

“You’re free,” is what I imagined him thinking. “It’s real. No one is coming after you. It’s a dream only because the dunya itself is a dream. Allah is with you here, in this bus. He will not abandon you.”

In that moment I loved that infant, because he was everything good in the world. He was hope and joy. He was the hunger to learn and experience every new thing.

Then the baby let out a loud burp and stuck his fist in his mouth. He broke the contact between us, focusing with great interest on the experience of sucking his own hand.

I was free. Not only free, but free in America, the land of my childhood. I felt a surge of joy like an ocean current, and I laughed. Some of the passengers glanced at me worriedly. Between me and the ‘good one’ guy, they must have feared they’d boarded a bus full of loonies.

As soon as I arrived in L.A. I walked into a clothing store and bought new jeans and a t-shirt, and gave my old clothes to a homeless teenager who sat on the corner at Seventh Street with a black puppy in his lap.

There I stood, on a street corner in Los Angeles, with less than $100 left in my pocket, no job and no home. But I’d known where I was going when I got on the bus. There was only one person I could go to – my father’s old friend, B.” 

***

Muhammad opened his mouth to say something and Hassan cut him off with a wave.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Hassan said. “And yes I do trust you all. But it’s one thing to talk about people who are dead or gone. This person is alive and I have to protect him. It’s safer to be discreet. So he will remain simply B.

B’s son had been my childhood friend, and I’d visited their house many times as a child. I didn’t know if B was alive or dead, or if he still lived in the same place, and if he did whether I could find the house. From the Greyhound station I took a city bus and got lost in Echo Park, which was not only the wrong neighborhood but the wrong city. You can’t imagine how big Los Angeles is if you’ve never been there. It’s a huge conglomeration of cities, all running into each other. I was down to eighty dollars in my pocket but I decided to spend a portion on a cab.

I directed the cabbie in vague terms to the area where I had grown up. As we came near, I recognized a shopping center and the outline of an iconic white factory that had been old when I was a kid. I gripped the headrest of the seat in front of me until I felt my heartbeat in my fingers.

I could have directed the cabbie to my old house, but I resisted the temptation and instead directed him to B’s house.

I recognized the house immediately, though the trees bordering the street were larger, and the sidewalk was cracked from roots pushing up. The shrubbery in the front yard was overgrown, and the grass was rife with weeds. It had never been like that in the past.

B answered the door himself. He’d lost the hair atop his head, and the fringe was white. His face was lined and his jowls sagged. He’d gained so much weight that his belly looked like a beach ball under his shirt. But it was him.

“If you’re here to offer yard service,” he said, “I’m not hiring.”

Though he had changed physically, his voice was the same. I was so relieved to see him that I could not speak. Emotion choked my throat and I merely shook my head.

“Oh,” he said. “What then? Pool service? The newspaper? Speak up.”

I thought I saw the beginnings of fear on his face. I guessed that perhaps my size was intimidating. I made an effort and found my voice. “It’s good to see you Ammu,” I said.

He relaxed visibly and tipped his head back to look down his nose at me, as if trying to peer through a pair of bifocals.

“Are you one of my son’s friends?”

I nodded my head and smiled. “An old friend. Do you remember Simon?”

B’s face drained of blood and he reached out to catch himself from falling. I caught him under the arms and he stared into my eyes from only inches away. His face showed disbelief and wonder.

“Are you Simon Ibrahim?” he whispered. “How can that be?”

I’d known he would be surprised, but I was puzzled by the extremity of his reaction.

“Yes Ammu,” I said. “It’s a long story, but my name is Hassan now. I’m Muslim. And I know that my name was never truly Simon Ibrahim.”

B recovered some of his strength and detached himself from me. His bald pate was beaded with sweat.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “Forgive my reaction. I simply never expected to see you again. I didn’t even know if you had survived the Lebanese civil war.”

He took me inside and I told him all that had transpired. He was shocked at what I had been through, and stunned at the revelation that Boulos Haddad had ordered the death of my father, then tried to kill me. When I was done he clasped my hand and said, “I will help you in every way I can. Don’t worry. You are not on your own.”

I was touched by that. I could never go home again, but this was the next best thing. My joy was short lived, however, as B informed me that his son – my old friend – had been stricken with a degenerative disease. He’d lost the use of his legs and much of his fine motor control with his hands.

I shared with B my belief that my father had hidden something for me. He was excited by the news. He wanted to plan a course of action to get to whatever my father had hidden, but I told him firmly that I didn’t want to involve him in something that might be illegal.

I did accept a loan. B gave me five thousand dollars to get by until I found a job. I rented a room for a weekly rate at a cheap motel called the Bluebell, a half mile from my old house. Then I bought a used bicycle at a local shop.

I avoided my old house. I intended to scout it eventually, but my priority was finding employment. I wanted something under the table, because I didn’t want my name and address on file with the IRS, the Social Security Agency or any other government agency. There was no immediate threat. But I wanted to stay off the books.

I visited a few landscaping services, looking for work, but I recognized right away that those companies were fully staffed with Mexican illegals who were paid illegally low wages. I wouldn’t get anything there. I also tried an ice cream truck company and a few restaurants, to no avail.

In the meantime, I tried to establish my identity as Hassan Amir. Even though I didn’t want to be employed on the books, I intended to secure my hold on my new identity. I applied for a copy of ‘my’ birth certificate and received it. For my address, I gave a post office box that I had rented. It was one of those P.O. boxes that masquerades as a real street address – suite such-and-such. I took a written test at the Department of Motor Vehicles and was granted a temporary driving permit. Then I applied for my driver’s license and was given an appointment for a driving exam.

Four days after I moved into the Bluebell I went out at night for a 7-11 chocolate run and passed a dance club called Slim’s. It had always been closed when I passed it during the day, but was apparently hopping at night. There was a line of people a half a block long, waiting to get in.

The lone doorman – a heavyset black man in a leather coat and sunglasses (worn more for the look than the weather, I supposed) – had his hands full trying to deal with four drunken young men who were beefing about not being allowed in. I soon came to realize, by the way, that sunglasses are an L.A. trademark. Everyone wears them, day and night, if not on their eyes then on the tops of their heads, or dangling around their necks. Old ladies go around with expensive shades buried in beehive haircuts.

The young men at the door shouted and cursed the doorman. One of them stepped forward and tried to shoulder his way through. When the doorman grabbed his neck and pulled him back, the young man swung at him. As the doorman tried to subdue the troublemaker, the other troublemakers pushed forward and joined the melee.

Some of the women in line screamed. The velvet rope delineating the line was knocked over, and people surged into the club without paying.

I’ve never liked seeing a group of cowards ganging up on one person. I parked my bike against the wall, ran forward and waded in. In seconds I’d pulled the young men off the doorman and thrown them to the ground, then blocked the door with my body to prevent any more freeloaders from entering.

The troublemakers walked away, nursing their bruises and cursing, as the doorman rose to his feet and brushed the dust from his leather coat.

“Thanks, man,” he said. “I’m Lenny.”

“I’m Johnny Deluca,” I said. 

*** 

Muhammad laughed. “You’re a trip, Hassan,” he said. “Like a spy novel.”

Jamilah didn’t think it was so funny. When someone lied constantly, how were others expected to believe him?

“Why didn’t you give your real name?” Jamilah said. “You were out of prison, free and clear. Why keep on lying?”

Hassan sighed. “Be patient, Jamilah. I think you’ll understand.

Lenny told me that the club was short-staffed and that I should go upstairs and talk to Rocky, the manager, about a job. “You sure got what it takes,” he said. “Tell Rocky I gave you a thumbs up.”

I thought about it. A dance club was not the ideal place of employment for a Muslim. But what was? Grocery stores sold liquor, fast food places served pork, financial institutions dealt in ribaa… How picky could I be? Plus, I’d heard that club work was usually under the table, which was exactly what I wanted. And I would only be managing the crowds at the door, not tending bar. It would do for now, at least.

Rocky was a muscular white guy in a black t-shirt that stretched across his massive chest and shoulders. His sunlamp-bronzed skin glistened in contrast to his tousled blonde hair. I was sure that some people would take him for just another artificial L.A. stereotype, but he had an easy smile and relaxed demeanor that I found appealing. His second floor office was fronted by a one-way mirror that looked down onto the club floor.

He looked me up and down. “You got the size. Good look, too. Can you handle yourself?”

I nodded my head. “The only thing I do well,” I said.

“You know any jokes?” Rocky asked.

I racked my mind, trying to remember a joke. I wasn’t good at jokes. Suddenly I remembered Jelly, one of the Muslim brothers from El Reno. A young brother from Kansas City, Kansas. He used to tell jokes all the time. Like you Muhammad, if you were a former drug dealer with cornrows. I pictured the scene in my head. We’re sitting around on the bandstand after Maghreb, swatting at mosquitoes. We’re finished with our sunnah and dhikr. Jelly pipes up and starts to tell a joke.

With that memory clear in my mind, I began to narrate the joke as I remembered it:

“This homie is struttin’ on the beach,” I said, “and he find a magic lamp. Rub it and a genie -”

“Why are you talking that way?” Rocky interrupted.

I frowned. “What way?”

“Like you’re channeling Eddie Murphy.”

“I… It’s a long story.”

“Huh. Well, maybe jokes aren’t your thing. That’s alright. Can you start tonight? Lenny could use some backup on the door.”

Ten minutes later I was working the door at Slim’s. 

*** 

“Hold on,” Muhammad said. “Was it the joke about the guy who wished for all the ladies to love him, and the genie turned him into a chocolate bar?”

Hassan snorted. “No. It was the one where – “

“You brothers do realize,” Kadija said, “that all these genie jokes are essentially about people bargaining with the jinn, which is a major sin?”

Jamilah rolled her eyes. It was one thirty in the morning, Hassan had been shot and still hadn’t told them why, they were finally reaching the end of the entire saga and everyone wanted to talk about jokes. She was about to let loose with a small tirade, but Hassan waved off Kadija’s comment and continued.

***

I was ready to scout my old house. I bicycled to an internet and print shop where I designed a flyer and printed twenty copies. I purchased a roll of masking tape and a small notebook in which I would record whatever activity I observed in the neighborhood. All of that went in a backpack. Then I rode to the house.

When I reached my old street, I began taping flyers to each telephone pole, on both sides of the street.

I intended to be discreet, but as I approached I slowed, and finally stopped at the driveway, in the exact spot where – so long ago – our family car had exploded and burned with my mother in it. I could see the differently colored cement where the crater in the driveway had been patched. I remembered the stink of urine, the smell of ANFO. More than anything, that smell had stayed with me. Recalling it now made me grimace.

There had been leaves everywhere, I remembered, knocked from the trees by the blast. Or was that something I had seen in Beirut, later? I’d seen so many car bomb scenes, so many mangled bodies, so much destruction…

I looked up at the trees. The leaves were all there. The young oak tree that had bordered the driveway was huge now, shading half the street. Why were there no signs of the explosion? Did trees heal over, or did they scar? I didn’t know.

Hardly knowing what I was doing, I dropped my bicycle on the driveway and stood, looking at the patched cement. I had spent so many years trying to forget that day, but now the memory returned in full force. The explosion that threw me across the room. My father, blood trickling from his ear. The explosion must have burst his eardrum. He must have been in terrible pain. I’d never thought about that before.

I looked up at the house, half expecting to see some sign of the damage. But of course it was in perfect condition. I saw now that it had been rebuilt differently. When I was a child the house had been yellow and white, with a front porch and an overhanging roof – California bungalow style, my mother called it. Now the house was a reddish brown color like dried blood, and the front door was recessed behind a locked gate. All the windows were barred, though they featured colorful flower boxes – perhaps in an attempt to soften the harshness of the bars.

Most significantly, the garage had been rebuilt as a detached cottage with its own front door and chimney. The cottage too had barred windows and stickers on the windows advertising a security company’s services.

I stepped onto the front lawn, which was neatly tended and bordered with succulents and clover. This was the spot where my father had been shot. I looked down, half expecting to see faded bloodstains on the green grass. But of course those events had happened long ago.

I thought about it. In reality, those terrible events had occurred fifteen and a half years ago. And yet in that time I had lived five lifetimes, it seemed.

I sank to my knees on the lawn and buried my fingers in the moist grass. I was aware on some level that I was being anything but discreet. My plan had been stupid. Ride past the house and observe? After so many years, as if nothing had happened? But this awareness felt distant and unimportant. My mind felt sluggish, as if my thoughts had been dipped in tar.

“What are you doing here? What do you want?”

I opened my eyes to see a a petite, thirty-something brunette standing before me, holding a sharp looking kitchen knife and pointing it at me menacingly. She looked frightened and angry.

I cleared my throat and tried to clear my mind as well.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ve been looking for my dog Jasper and just needed to rest.”

Still on my knees, I took one of the flyers from my backpack and handed it to her.

“Have you seen him?” I asked. “I need to find him.”

I didn’t feel good about lying to the woman. I was aware that I was playing on her sympathies and manipulating her. But what else could I do? It wasn’t like I could say, “You know that car bomb that half-wrecked this neighborhood sixteen years ago? Well, that was my family, and I believe my father buried something beneath your garage, and I need to dig up the floor.”

The woman took the flyer, which depicted a cute cocker spaniel puppy with sad eyes, and the words, “Lost Dog,” along with a description of my imaginary pet and an offer of reward.

The woman’s eyes softened and she regarded me sympathetically. “I’m – I’m sorry,” she said. She made a motion as if to put the knife in her pocket, then thought better of it and looked around as if searching for somewhere to put it. Finally she simply kept it in her hand and looked at me.

“It’s just that we had two attempted break-ins recently,” she said. She waved the knife in the direction of the cottage. “Someone tried to get in our cottage. I don’t know why. There’s nothing of value. Just an old TV and some books.”

“I apologize for sitting on your lawn,” I said, rising slowly, brushing my hands off on my jeans and zipping my backpack closed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just felt very tired all of a sudden.” That was true enough. I felt as if I had run a marathon.

“Don’t worry about it,” the woman said. “I’m not normally so looney tunes.”

“You have to be safe in this crazy world,” I said. 

*** 

Jamilah had a question on the tip of her tongue. There was an obvious deduction that Hassan had ignored completely. But she decided to hold her peace for the moment and let him continue. 

*** 

“I had an idea,” Hassan continued.

“Listen,” I said. “Can I ask you something? I moved here from Oklahoma. I’m staying at the Bluebell Motel down the road, and I work security at Slim’s, do you know it?”

The woman laughed. “My club days are past. I’m married.”

“The thing is, I’m looking for a place to live. The Bluebell doesn’t allow pets. I’m always worried they’ll find out about Jasper. Assuming I find him.”

“I’m sure you’ll find him,” the woman said.

“Your cottage would be perfect. It’s close to my work, and I could pay you a decent rent. Jasper’s quiet and he doesn’t shed. Plus, I work security. Maybe having me around would prevent break-ins.”

The woman glanced back at the cottage. “Well,” she said. “It has been empty for a while. We built it for my brother when he was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away three years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That’s rough.”

She nodded and made a motion as if to brush her hair from her face, then remembered the knife and stopped. “Especially for the kids. Listen, let me talk to my husband and I’ll let you know.” She looked at the flyer. “Is this your number?”

“Actually, that’s the number at Slim’s. I don’t have a phone. Can I just come by tomorrow?”

“Sure. I’m Holly. I’d shake your hand, but…” She held the knife up.

“I’m Johnny,” I said.

*** 

When I returned the next day, Holly invited me in and served a cold soda. She informed me that her husband had agreed to rent me the cottage. He was a clothing designer who made frequent business trips to the Far East, and was sometimes gone for a month or more.

“He’s been worried,” Holly said. “Especially since the break-ins. I think he’s relieved that I’ll have someone responsible on the property. You are responsible, aren’t you?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. “You can call my employer if you like.”

She shook her head. “I can tell you’re alright. I’m good that way. And what’s this ma’am business? I’m practically your age.”

I didn’t know whether to feel good or bad about renting the cottage. It would be hard seeing this place every day. All the memories. Riding my bike over this driveway would be like rubbing my heart on a cheese grater.

To make matters worse, I had a sense that Holly was interested in me on more than a landlord-tenant level. It had been a long time since I’d felt the touch of a woman, and this was a temptation I didn’t need.

On the other hand, living in the cottage meant I’d be able to search for whatever my father had left. The cottage sat directly on the location of the old garage, most likely on the original foundation.

I paid the first month’s rent and deposit and moved in immediately.

The first thing I noticed was the hardwood flooring. The cottage consisted of a single large room with a small bathroom in the rear corner. It didn’t have a proper kitchen – just a formica countertop with a sink, hotplate and microwave, and a mini fridge stashed beneath the counter. But it was nicely furnished. Thick hand-woven rugs softened the floor. It was furnished with a plush green sofa and loveseat, a small kitchen table with two antique-looking chairs, an ornate reading desk, and a single bed with a reading lamp mounted on the headboard.

To me it was a mansion. Compared to the six by twelve foot prison cells that I had shared with one and sometimes two men, the cottage was a slice of heaven.

Holly was a musician with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and on the days when she attended rehearsal I had peace and quiet, and could work undisturbed.

When she was home, however, she knocked on my door two or three times a day. At first she tried to get me to drink with her – she was a serious wine drinker – but  when that didn’t work she started bringing me lemonade or cookies. Instead of letting her in, I’d sit on the front stoop and chat for a few minutes, then excuse myself. I felt sorry for her. Her husband was away most of the time, and the two kids – whose names were Viola and Oboe, and I’m not making that up – were in daycare during the day. But it wasn’t my problem.

***

When I started prying up the floorboards, Holly was there in a flash, asking curiously about the noise, and trying to peek past me into the cottage. Fortunately I’d anticipated this problem. I had purchased a punching bag and hung it from the exposed rafters in the ceiling. I pointed it out to Holly and explained that I practiced punches, kicks and stick strikes on the bag, and that it could be loud.

“I make plenty of noise when I practice,” Holly said, touching my hand. “We’ll have to learn to ignore each other.”

I began the process of moving the furniture and rugs from place to place, removing floorboards in sections, and inspecting the exposed cement carefully. From the faded oil stains and occasional gouges, it was clear that the floor was still the original cement from the garage. I didn’t see any point in digging it up. That would be difficult, loud and time-consuming, not to mention impossible to hide.

Also, I assumed that whatever my father had hidden was something he would want to retrieve at a later date, which meant that it had to be accessible.

Each time I completed a section I replaced the floorboards. I laid down the builder’s felt, nailed the boards back in place using the original nail holes, and covered the nail heads with wood putty. When the putty was dry I replaced the furniture or rug that had covered that spot.

I often heard Holly practicing music in the main house. One afternoon the music became discordant and wild, then stopped. Shortly afterward she came to my door crying while I was in the middle of removing a section of flooring. I covered the spot with a rug, exited the cottage and pulled the door shut behind me. Holly threw herself into my arms, sobbing, and I had to pry her loose. Her breath reeked of alcohol.

“Have you found Jasper?” she asked. “Are you still looking?”

“Still looking,” I lied, “but I’ve almost given up hope.”

Holly wiped her eyes and smiled suggestively. “I could comfort you,” she said. “Or just keep you company. I’m having a rotten day. We’re doing a piece by Mahler next month and I can’t get my part right. Can’t I just come in and watch while you practice or whatever you do?”

Of course I refused and sent her away. She didn’t like that. I could see in her face that my lack of receptiveness was becoming a problem. I didn’t have much time left to do what I needed to do.

Sure enough, she came to see me the next day, her face tight with anger.

“This isn’t working out,” she said. “You’re not the friendly type of person that I thought.”

I reminded her that I had paid for a month in advance and that I had a right to stay for the full month.

“Fine,” she said. “But when the month is over, I want you out.”

The days raced by. I worked a ten-hour shift at the club every night, and between sleeping and meals, I had only a few hours each day to work on the search. What if whatever I sought was beneath the kitchen counter, the shower or the toilet? I’d never find it.

With a week remaining on my month’s rent, I went to see my father’s friend B. He was the only person I trusted. I updated him on my search and lack of success so far.

“I’ll hire a crew tomorrow,” he said as brewed a mug of tea. “We’ll tear out the floor and jackhammer the foundation if necessary.”

I shook my head. “That would attract attention. And I don’t want you getting in trouble if anything goes wrong. I can handle it.”

“Then handle it,” he snapped. I looked at him in surprise and he apologized. “I only want what’s best for you,” he said. “I feel terrible about how difficult your life has been, all you’ve been through. I should have helped you somehow.”

I stood and gripped his shoulder reassuringly. “None of it was your fault. You couldn’t have known what the future held. You’re helping me now, and that’s plenty.” 

*** 

Four days passed without success. Time was running out. That afternoon, Holly showed up at my door yet again. She had a small bandage on her upper lip, and held a CD in her hand. I could smell the wine on her breath. She extended the CD.

“I burned some songs for you,” she said. “A workout routine. I thought we could patch things up.”

“What happened?” I asked, indicating her lip. I wondered if she had banged her mouth on a door and cut it.

Holly’s frowned. “Just a cold sore,” she said. “No big deal. Can I come in? We can listen to the CD together.”

“I’m sorry Holly, but I -”

“Is it the cold sore?” Her face turned red with anger. “It’s not my fault that my bastard husband gave me herpes. I know he picked it up from some foreign whore. I’m not good enough for you, is that it?”

“It’s not that, it’s just – “

“Three days!” She shouted. “Then you’d better be out or I’m calling the sheriff! And I don’t believe you even have a dog!” She threw the CD at me and it bounced off my chest, the case breaking open when it fell to the ground. Then she stormed off.

An hour later there was another knock. Feeling resigned, I opened the door, only to find two police officers, with Holly standing close behind them, trying to push through.

One of the officers, a Hispanic female, turned to Holly. “Ma’am, I told you to stay inside.”.

The other, a young white man, addressed me. “Miss Holly Porter here says you assaulted her and tried to rape her.”

I stared at him. “That’s not true, officer.” I explained that Holly frequently came to my door drunk, wanting to be admitted, and would get angry when I refused. The officer nodded his head, as if he’d half expected to hear that. I had no doubt that he could smell the liquor on her breath. The two officers declined to file a report, and left.

“Cowards!” Holly screamed after them. “I pay your salaries!”

I shut the door and locked it. This was turning into a nightmare. How could people live like this? I knew that not all non-Muslims were so out of control, but I had the bad luck to live next to a alcoholic stalker. Still, thank God for Islam.

I felt sorry for Holly, but she wasn’t my problem. I only had three days left on my lease. I had to find whatever my father had hidden, now.

I found it the next morning.

I had removed a section of flooring near the rear wall. I noticed a very fine line in the cement, outlining a square about two feet on a side. In the center of this square, two bolt holes were drilled into the cement. There wasn’t anything overtly suspicious about it. It merely looked as if something had been bolted to the floor at some point in the past. A workbench, perhaps, or a tool of some kind. I vaguely recalled that my parents had had a deep chest freezer on this spot.

I shined a flashlight down into the bolt holes. In each hole there was a small steel eyehook, about two inches down. The bolt holes were too narrow even for my fingers. I would need a specialized tool. During the war I’d sometimes had to jury-rig repairs to rusting equipment and to the barracks themselves. Though we’d had a small engineering corps, they mostly tended to the needs of the leadership and high-ranking officers.

I didn’t have to jury-rig anything. At an auto parts store I found a chain with an s-hook attached to each end, used for towing. I hammered the s-hooks flat so that they would fit into the bolt holes. I’m sure my father had had a more elegant way of removing the cement block. But mine would work, I thought.

I draped the chain over my shoulders, fitted the s-hooks into the eyehooks, squatted down, gripped the strap and lifted with my legs. In prison I’d been able to squat 485 pounds. I don’t know how much this cement block weighed, but it was heavy. The chain dug painfully into my upper back. But it worked, and the cement block slowly came up out of the ground. With a tremendous effort I managed to lift it above floor level and set it to the side.

How on earth had my father moved the block? Even he and my mother would not have been able to lift it together. My father’s leg had been lame, after all. Perhaps he’d built a makeshift pulley of some kind…

Inside the hole was a steel combination safe, laid on its back so that the door faced up. I stared at it. There really was something here, after all. I hadn’t been at all sure there would be. After all these years, I was looking at something that my own father had hidden. He’d probably not hidden it specifically for me, but still, it was a piece of my father’s life, sitting here underground for sixteen years.

How was I going to open the safe without the combination? I had to vacate this cottage the next day. Could I simply lift it out and take it with me? I studied it from all angles. Small, engraved letters at the bottom of the door identified it as an “Ultrasafe Fire Safe 3000”. The safe was deep chested, with thick steel walls, and fit snugly into the hole. It must weigh hundreds of pounds, even more than the cement slab. There was no way I’d lift it out without equipment, and even then I’d have to jackhammer the floor around it. My father must have hired a construction team to build this hole and lower the safe into it.

Maybe I could blow the safe open? No. I had some limited experience with explosives, but not enough for a job like this, and where would I get explosives anyway?

I had to figure out the combination, and I had to do it by tomorrow. Because the safe lay on its back with the door facing up, I would not have to remove it at all if I could just get the combination right.

I sat on the floor, still breathing deeply from the effort of hoisting the cement block. I laid down on the floor and closed my eyes. The combination could be anything. And I had no idea how many digits the combination contained, or how many times to spin the wheel. Tomorrow morning I’d see what I could learn. With great effort I lowered the cement slab back in place, restored the floorboards, threw a rug over the spot, and moved the loveseat over it.

I rode my bike to a payphone the next day, ready with a pocket full of quarters. First I called directory assistance and requested the number for Ultrasafe Corp, which was based in Toledo, as it turned out.

I didn’t need my quarters. Ultrasafe had a toll-free customer service line. I was transferred to a chipper-sounding woman named Bettina, who seemed ecstatic at the opportunity to help me. I explained that I had an Ultrasafe 3000 and that I vaguely remembered the combination, but that I’d forgotten which directions to turn the wheel.

“It’s called a dial,” Bettina corrected me. “What’s the serial number?”

Fortunately I had thought to jot it down and I rattled off the numbers.

“Oldie but a goodie!” Bettina said. “It’s easy. You’ll note that the dial displays from zero to ninety nine. All you have to do is spin four times left to the first number, three times right to the second, two times left to the third, then one time right to zero. Note that I said to each number, not past. You’d be amazed how many people get that wrong. And there is no such thing as clearing the lock by spinning the dial. That’s a myth, like Bigfoot, you know? Speaking of, I’d be in hiding too, if people called me Bigfoot. Heavens alive, the wheels inside the lock are already out of position – that’s technical talk. I’m not a technician but I’ve learned over the years. Spinning the dial does nothing.”

I think she would have gone on all morning if I hadn’t thanked her and hung up.

Back at the cottage, I moved the chair and rug, gritted my teeth and hoisted the cement block again. My legs were getting a workout, and I already had a long blue bruise across my neck and traps from last night’s effort. I had no choice, however.

I looked at the safe. Three numbers, anywhere from one to ninety nine. I said Bismillah and spun the dial, turning left to the day of my birth, right to the month, left to the year, then right to zero.

Nothing happened. That was vanity, I supposed. I tried Charlie’s birthday, then my mother’s and father’s birthdays in turn, though I wasn’t 100% sure of the year in my parents’ cases. I tried the house number, one digit at a time. That would have been too obvious. Then I tried variations of all the above, for example using one digit for the month and then two; and two digits for the year and then four. I tried putting my ear to the dial and listening like I’d seen in the movies, but all I heard was the rasp of my own breath.

Frustrated, I paced the floor. Every time I passed the heavy bag, I hit it. I was out of ideas.

I remembered something Jamil used to say. “When you’re out of ideas, ask Allah.”

I went to the bathroom and performed wudu’. As I did, I felt myself growing calm, as if the water were washing away my anxiety.

I laid my musalla on the floor. It was the very same musalla that Jamil had given me seven years ago. It was homemade – made by one of the brothers Jamil had known at Leavenworth – and depicted a small masjid with a dome and minaret. I prayed ‘Ishaa, trying to clear my mind of all worldly thoughts, focusing only on the words that I spoke, and on my presence before Allah.

When my prayer was complete I raised my hands in dua’. I spoke to Allah in my own words, asking Him to help me open the safe, not because I needed any money that might be inside. I had considered that possibility but I didn’t care about it. What was more important to me was that it was from my father. A piece of his life. And maybe something from my mother as well.

As I thought about my mother and father together, I remembered a day when I’d been eight years old, before my mom and dad split up temporarily. Charlie and I had surprised the two of them with breakfast in bed for their anniversary. Between the two of us we’d managed to mess up the entire kitchen in order to produce a dish of scrambled eggs with pepper and cinnamon – Charlie insisted that cinnamon made everything better – along with whole pickles and fresh-squeezed orange juice. We’d picked the oranges from Mr. Niemeyer’s tree across the street, and used twenty oranges to make two glasses of juice.

Their anniversary. We’d all celebrated it, every year. October 30, 1974. It was easy to remember, because it was the day before Halloween, and the year before I was born. A day for our parents, then a day for us kids.

I was right this time. I could feel it.

I went to the safe, said a quick dua’, and kneeled beside it. I breathed on my fingers like the safecrackers I’d seen in the movies, and tried 10 left, spinning the dial four times. 30 right, spinning three times. 74 left, spinning two times. Then right to the zero.

With bated breath, I pulled on the lever beside the dial.

Nothing. It wouldn’t budge. I let out my breath in a huff. I stared at the safe. I was sure I was right. You know the famous hadith qudsi from Nawawi’s forty, the one about drawing near to Allah? Allah said, and I’m paraphrasing, that one draws near to Allah through the required worship and extra good deeds, until Allah loves him. When that happens, Allah becomes his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. If this servant asks for something, Allah grants it, and if he seeks refuge, Allah gives it.

That was how I felt in that moment. Allah had given me the answer and was guiding me, moving my hand on the dial. There was only some little detail that I was missing…

Aha! I remembered that outside of the USA, the month is often listed after the day. I tried again. 30 left, 10 right, 74 left, and right to zero. I heard a tiny click. I gripped the lever and pulled.

The safe opened, and I stared at the contents in wonder.

Next:  Hassan’s Tale, Part 16 – Kidnapped

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Wael Abdelgawad's novels can be purchased at his author page at Amazon.com: Wael is an Egyptian-American living in California. He is the founder of several Islamic websites, including, Zawaj.com, IslamicAnswers.com and IslamicSunrays.com. He teaches martial arts, and loves Islamic books, science fiction, and ice cream. Learn more about him at WaelAbdelgawad.com. For a guide to all of Wael's online stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.

64 Comments

64 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hafsa

    September 17, 2014 at 1:25 AM

    It’s that briefcase he found, I’m guessing.

    • Avatar

      Amatullah

      September 18, 2014 at 8:51 AM

      I happened to read this comment before I read the story and was like “Whaa..? If the treasure wasn’t revealed after such a long story, what are the 5 pages about then?” I am impatiently waiting for the treasure to be revealed in next episode!

  2. Avatar

    SnJannah

    September 17, 2014 at 3:07 AM

    Thank you brother Wael. :)

  3. Avatar

    Shafiq

    September 17, 2014 at 5:27 AM

    I knew it, Brother Wael. I knew you’d leave us on a cliff hanger. Hurry up and post the next part!

  4. Avatar

    Safa

    September 17, 2014 at 10:25 AM

    Jazakah Allahu khayran, this was a good part and imparted some relief … although Hassan mashallah is quite clever in his plots. Very driven & focused.

    If only he knows that Mr. B is a traitor.

  5. Avatar

    asrauf

    September 17, 2014 at 8:19 PM

    Probably a small typo, you meant to say: “I remembered that outside of the USA, the month is often listed **AFTER** the day”

  6. Avatar

    Bint Mubasher

    September 17, 2014 at 9:22 PM

    AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH, this was amazing!
    I seriously can’t wait till next week. LIKE SERIOUSLY, can’t Hassan tell that Ammu is a traitor?!?!
    Hats off Br. Wael :))

  7. Avatar

    umm habiba

    September 18, 2014 at 12:42 AM

    I didn’t have to jury rig anything.. There’s a typo there.
    Great story and wonderful moments of inspiration.
    Jazaak Allah khair bro Wael

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 18, 2014 at 12:58 AM

      Some people say jury rig, some say jerry rig. Both are correct. Thank you for your kind comment, jazak Allah khayr.

    • Avatar

      Bint Mubasher

      September 19, 2014 at 9:48 AM

      My name is Habiba! I bet your daughter is amazing :)))))))))))

  8. Avatar

    Blue Pilot

    September 18, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    You’re a very gifted writer brother Wael mashaAllah. I love this story. Maybe you shouldnt post the ‘ourboros’ online. You should publish the book and I’ll buy one for everyone I know :) Baarak Allaah feek!

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 18, 2014 at 11:56 PM

      Haha, I think the readers would surround me in a dark alley and mug me for the pages.

  9. Avatar

    Hanadi

    September 18, 2014 at 3:09 PM

    The hardest part is waiting for the next post. Patience was never one of my virtues. MashAllah, keep up the great work.

  10. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    September 18, 2014 at 11:55 PM

    I just rewrote the scene on page 3 where Hassan tries to tell a joke to get the job. I like it better this way.

    • Avatar

      Amatullah

      September 19, 2014 at 12:46 AM

      This is now echoing the serious-side of Hassan Amir.

  11. Avatar

    Hafsa

    September 20, 2014 at 12:31 AM

    I’m not sure where I missed it. Why/ when did Hassan think his father had left him something?

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 20, 2014 at 12:53 AM

      You didn’t miss it. It was an idea I had later, and went back and inserted on this page in Part 5 of Hassan’s Tale. I also inserted mentions of it in a few other chapters.

      • Avatar

        Hafsa

        September 21, 2014 at 11:59 PM

        Jazak Allah khair for the reply. Can’t wait for the book!

  12. Avatar

    abuamirah

    September 20, 2014 at 5:36 PM

    wow, masha Allah i have been hooked all along. Great writing bro. You inspire me alot.

  13. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    September 23, 2014 at 8:49 PM

    As-salamu alaykum everyone. The next chapter of Hassan’s Tale is turning out a bit long. I need two more days to finish, Insha’Allah. Check back on Thursday night / Friday morning.

  14. Avatar

    Rabya

    September 24, 2014 at 5:49 PM

    Salam bro Wael! So are we waiting til bect week for part 16??

  15. Avatar

    Nus

    September 25, 2014 at 5:31 PM

    AssalamuAlaikum Brother Wael. Please take all the time you need. You need not feel rushed inshallah.

  16. Avatar

    Farah Afzal

    September 26, 2014 at 1:41 PM

    “Tomorrow night” came and went.This is not good.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 26, 2014 at 2:23 PM

      Part 16 is ready. I’m just waiting on my MM editor. Be patient, Insha’Allah :-)

  17. Avatar

    SZH

    September 26, 2014 at 1:43 PM

    Is today 26th?
    My internet browser is not showing link to “Hassan’s Tale, Part 16 – Kidnapped” on muslimmatters.org

  18. Avatar

    umm habiba

    September 26, 2014 at 2:50 PM

    Relax guys.. It takes time.
    Lol bro Wael, it’s going to be difficult handling the fame

  19. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    September 26, 2014 at 3:29 PM

    Update: Just heard from my editor. Part 16 will be published Saturday, Insha’Allah. Sorry folks!

    • Avatar

      Ahmad

      September 27, 2014 at 8:46 AM

      We should have more patience. After all, this is something brother Wael is doing for free.

  20. Avatar

    Hazza

    September 26, 2014 at 11:00 PM

    Absolutely disappointed to be waiting this long Br. Wael, its been like this for the past 2 to 3 weeks and you have constantly made us (the readers) wait every single time, only to be telling us the last second that we have to wait YET AGAIN before you publish the next part. There’s no efficiency or time-management whatsoever.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 26, 2014 at 11:21 PM

      Hazza, this is the best I can do. I’m not a fast writer. The creative process takes time. I put a lot of thought into my plot, characters and settings. I revise and revise again. Sometimes I write a scene a certain way but it doesn’t feel authentic, so I change it. At the same time, I have my work, and a daughter to care for (I am a single parent), and my martial arts classes (I am an instructor). Completing a chapter from Tuesday to Tuesday is not always possible, especially with the longer chapters that I’ve been writing recently.

    • Avatar

      Wazeed

      September 27, 2014 at 12:11 AM

      @ Hazza. Grow up. at the end of the day its a fictional story. Get off the brothers neck. straight up. When he gets to it he will get to it. So sit there and wait till it comes up then you can can read.

  21. Avatar

    Hazza

    September 27, 2014 at 1:31 AM

    Fair enough brother Wael. My bad and my apologies, take as much as time as you need.

    P.S. why not just publish it every 2weeks then Br. Wael?

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 27, 2014 at 1:39 AM

      Hazza, that probably would have been wiser. With Ouroboros (the next story), I plan to write the entire thing before beginning the weekly installments, Insha’Allah. So it won’t be an issue.

      • Avatar

        n.h.

        September 27, 2014 at 4:48 AM

        Dear brother Wael, we are an impatient bunch and we live your writing… bad for you :). You can write everything before hand but we will miss the anticipation… a bit.

      • Avatar

        Rabya

        September 27, 2014 at 10:13 AM

        Salam brother! Hmmm I don’t know about that! I actually like the fact that we have to wait some weeks: it reminds us that you’re human and not to take you for granted! Also there’s always a surprise after each wait! A nice long story! And waiting builds the suspense, the trepidation!
        And really for Ouroboros, we have to wait til its all written first, then may be waiting much longer before the series starts…
        May Allah bless you for this brother!

  22. Avatar

    Umm Meriem

    September 27, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    Just take all of this impatience as a compliment to the author. This has been a great read from start to finish, ماشاء الله تبارك الله

  23. Avatar

    Umar

    September 27, 2014 at 12:21 PM

    Assalam u alaikum brother Wael, are you going to post this story later during the day or at another time. I was confused because when you update, you usually updated early during the day.

  24. Avatar

    Umm bilal

    September 27, 2014 at 4:21 PM

    Really brother wael, I have never checked mm this frequently

    • Avatar

      Rabya

      September 27, 2014 at 5:43 PM

      Hahahahaha! SubhanAllah sister, you are so right!
      Have been going back and forth since Wednesday…although I did pick up some interesting articles during the wait! ;-)

      • Avatar

        Umm bilal

        September 27, 2014 at 10:55 PM

        Ha ha same here sister Rabya… May be this one is worth the wait !!

  25. Avatar

    homayra

    September 27, 2014 at 8:29 PM

    Where is it…..been checking 5x a day ! LOL

  26. Avatar

    umm

    September 28, 2014 at 9:42 AM

    OK I’m not going to check MM until Wednesday.
    I find it annoying(and slightly insulting) that the editors would delay to post a ready chapter.

  27. Avatar

    zen

    September 28, 2014 at 10:11 AM

    I’m with umm. I have nothing but praise for the writing and the story lines masha Allah… and I have no problem waiting. But be to given the runaround in this way is disrespectful imo.

    • Avatar

      Helpless Slave

      September 28, 2014 at 10:41 AM

      I agree. Unless there is a valid excuse this is highly unprofessional.

  28. Avatar

    abdullah

    September 28, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    Dear MM: be better than the muslim organizations we’ve grown tired of. Don’t say you’ll do something then fail to deliver. Just set reasonable expectations, then stick to them. Also don’t treat your readers like little children (remember Ramadan?) These types of things are pretty fundamental to the business world in which many of us work, and when we see that another one of our organizations doesn’t stand up to the kinds of standards we take for granted from non-Muslims, it doesn’t reflect well.

    I won’t lie, this is the main reason I come to MM, and I think there are others like myself. You should be treating this story series as your hook, i.e. the means by which you bring more people to your site, whereby they can benefit from other content. What I’m saying is that when you mess this one up, it will probably have the opposite effect.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 28, 2014 at 11:54 AM

      The editor had a family emergency. He is working on posting the story today, Insha’Allah.

      It was narrated from ‘Umar (may Allaah be pleased with him) that he said: “Do not think badly of a word uttered by your brother, when you can find a good interpretation for it.”

      In other words, assume the best about people. Be patient and understanding with them. Jazakum Allah khayr. Thank you all for your enthusiasm and loyalty. Your eagerness keeps me writing.

  29. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    September 28, 2014 at 12:04 PM

    My daughter Salma says, “Just let him write! I had to read all of these comments! Seriously? 49 comments? Okay that’s it.”

    Ha ha don’t mind her, she’s 8 years old and has a lot of attitude.

    • Avatar

      abdullah

      September 28, 2014 at 12:37 PM

      Brother Wael – no skin off your back. I understand the difficulties of writing, and that sometimes these things take more time than expected. However, I’m kind of disappointed with the way MM has handled some aspects of this story series, and think they could have done – and still can do – better here. Allah bless your daughter.

    • Avatar

      Helpless Slave

      September 28, 2014 at 1:23 PM

      Adding to my earlier comment, I think we should revisit the earlier episode of Hassan’s tale – POSITIVE ASSUMPTIONS. It feels like we have deviated far from the original niyyah of reading this story, I think hassan as a character provides us with so much naseehah which are overlooking as we are treating this as any other story. We have totally side stepped the Islamic ethos that the story aims at

  30. Avatar

    Umar

    September 28, 2014 at 12:50 PM

    So when is it going to be posted?

  31. Avatar

    Helpless Slave

    September 28, 2014 at 1:04 PM

    Subhana Allah how hasty we are, we don’t give our rights to our brothers and complain about the “Ummah is messed up”. I feel stupid now, to have posted to my earlier comment.

  32. Avatar

    homayra

    September 28, 2014 at 4:44 PM

    (Quotes Quran) فصبر جميل!!! Its hard isnt it….what about our bro n sis in palestine?? Patience ya ummati !

  33. Avatar

    n.h.

    September 28, 2014 at 6:28 PM

    Family emergencies are valid. Patience is important. But I do hope MM will read and consider brother Abdullah’s comment as a naseeha. I personally did not like how MM handled Ramadan publications. Its important to set the right kind of expectations otherwise it all turns into an unnecessary test lol. I work, I look after my 2 year old, cook for a big family, deal with the fact that hubby works away so most of the week I am like a single mum, do classes and meetings and whatever productive I can. This series had been a good outlet and source of inspiration. When I have a bad day with everything in life, this whole waiting business is just an unnecessary, additional burden. Works like the last straw and breaks my back lol. Okay thats an exaggeration, but my mood does slide! I am sure the brothers and sisters complaining here probably havr similar excuses! Who knows, may be thereis a reader from palestine!

  34. Avatar

    Komal

    September 28, 2014 at 9:01 PM

    I think most of us failed to notice “Hassan’s ” level of PATIENCE and hence gave the MM team and brother Wael quiet an earful:)

  35. Avatar

    reshmarahiman

    September 28, 2014 at 9:41 PM

    Assalamualikum dear brother’s and sisters. It was quiet entertaining to read the comment section and I must say the comments have kept me entertained during the “wait” :). Alhamdulillah brother Wael may Allah reward you for your efforts. I am a designer by profession and can totally relate to the creative process and creative blocks! Pressure is a big joy killer and a big NO to the spontaneous overflow of ‘the creative juices’. And to all fellow Muslims following the story I can’t help but notice our impatience has been directly proportional to the delay..or do I dare say vice versa? So let us remain calm, we are Muslims first and patience should be our dominant virtue. Brother Wael when you do anticipate a delay (due to creative block, etc) bail yourself beforehand by announcing the same. When I work with deadlines and I cannot meet it I inform my client a few days ahead and then sometimes I do end up submitting the work before hand, but the buffer always helps. As for MM I believe you could have put an official announcement regarding the delay rather than put it in the comment section, as a reaction to the reader’s comments. I believe that way it could have been more professional. :) Allah knows best. May Allah guide us on the straight path. :)Ameen.

  36. Avatar

    Rabya

    September 28, 2014 at 10:02 PM

    Seriously people: CHILL!!!
    Nastagfirullah!! What’s wrong witht this Ummah!!!
    We’re all complaining just because our dear FICTIONAL story hasn’t been posted this week! REALLY??? How about seriously practicing what Islam preaches: Patience! And stop feeling soooo entitled!!
    Yes it’s a weekly series, but if it’s not ready, or there’s a setback, then keep it moving! Continue on with ur lives until it’s posted again.
    Do some dhikr, fast, take up a hobby, go on a trip, read a book, learn Quran until the following Wednesday!!! :D
    The Editor had a family emergency and yet not even one of us prayed that Allah make it easy for him!
    How about we all be grateful for this FREE means of entertainement and guidance, and stop shooting down the MM folks!
    As for Ramadan, being a HUGE fan of Brother Wael’s stories, I was a bit bummed about the break, but honestly it was in our best interest!
    It’s MM’s site, they call the shots. And on Judgement Day, they will be called to account for their actions. And postponing fictional stories so we can concentrate on Qur’an, I pray will weigh heavily in their balance of good deeds!
    So if ur not okay with some of the decisions, get ur own team of writers and start ur own blog.
    Or better yet post something constructive in the comments section so that those checking the page for the Millionth time will benefit from it!
    In the meantime if we can’t say anything nice or productive , lets stay silent and enjoy the ride… :)
    Wa salam aleikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu!!

    • Aly Balagamwala

      Aly Balagamwala

      September 29, 2014 at 12:39 AM

      Jazakillahu Khairin Sister and Aameen to your duas.

      While y’all wait may I suggest you look around the site and benefit from over 6 yeas of content. Just enter a random year and month in the format http://muslimmatters.org/2010/04/ (ie April, 2010)

      WasSalamuAlaikum
      Aly
      CommentsTeam Lead

  37. Avatar

    aaz

    September 29, 2014 at 12:44 AM

    That’s right why didn’t anyone pray for the editor? May Allah ease the difficulties he/she is facing right now.

  38. Avatar

    Helpless Slave

    September 29, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakaatuhu Brother Wael, any idea when the next part will published.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      September 29, 2014 at 1:25 PM

      I’m sorry, I don’t know. I was told yesterday or today. I guess the MM editorial staff is a little bit understaffed or overworked right now.

  39. Avatar

    Omer

    September 30, 2014 at 10:09 AM

    I just reread a section of this, and I thought it would be beneficial to reflect on Hassan’s decision to work at the dance club. The point of this comment is definitely not to condemn or judge a fictional character, but it is to point out a way of though that is common, and which I am extremely guilty of, in the hopes that it proves beneficial. He rationalizes it by stating the limited alternatives and the prevalence of haram in many general work places. I feel that we fall victim to that trend of thought when faced with sin. To make it acceptable to us we (with much help from the devil) spin an argument to justify it and make it okay, and sometimes its good to just step back and objectively view the issue. I appreciate Hassan’s circumstances, but Hassan was just an example used to facilitate this general advice.

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#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 7: The Underground Dream

Behind them, the city was burning. Omar and a thousand others descended into the cave, led by the red-robed Saviors.

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Caves of Borneo

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

“Not without you,” – Omar

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Omar’s mother flipped when she saw the bruising on his face – how could she not, when the whole right side of his face was the color of an eggplant – and demanded to know who had attacked him, but he merely told her he’d slipped and fallen in a pothole, which was true as far as it went. No point in freaking her out further with the details. Though Omar didn’t see why she should care. Nemesio had beaten him for years and she hadn’t stopped it. Why should it matter now? It smacked of hypocrisy.

He was not the type to give up on anything, so the next morning he ate the breakfast his mother prepared – scrambled eggs, corn tortillas with white cheese, and coffee – and set out again for Hani’s house. This time he made it without incident, although he was exhausted by the time he got there, and his shirt and hair were damp with sweat.

Hani lived in an orange-colored home with peeling paint and a high metal fence surrounding a tiny front yard. Curiously, there was a moving van parked in front of the house, and a stack of boxes on the front patio.

Hani’s mother, a thin Arab woman with a long face just like her son’s, answered the door.

“Omar!” she said warmly. “It’s been too long.” Then her eyes took in the scars on his face, his half-ruined ear, and the massive purple bruise on his face, and her smile faded. “What happened?” She pointed to her own cheek. “Is that bruising from the… the incident?”

“No. I fell down yesterday. But I’m fine.”

“I see. Be careful.” She seemed at a loss for a moment, then she said, “I saw you on television. Congratulations for the award.”

“Are you guys moving?”

Her smile faded. “Yes. We are moving to Bogotá. For Hani’s father’s work, you understand. I know Hani will miss you.”

“Oh.” Omar was taken aback. He and Hani had known each other since they were little. Now he was moving without warning? Omar doubled up his hands on the cane, resting more weight on it. “When are you leaving?”

“In a few days. Hani is not here. He went with his father to buy boxes.”

“Oh.” Knowing he must sound like a simpleton. “Should I come back later?”

Hani’s mother hesitated, emotions playing on her face like the shadows of rain clouds. “Maybe not. He will be very busy.”

Omar did not understand. He wanted to ask if she could give him a ride home, but was too embarrassed. He walked slowly home and collapsed into bed for a long afternoon nap.

Underground

Caves of Borneo Behind them, the city was burning. Not from bombs, but from the hands of citizens against citizens. But the bombs would fall soon, they were told, so they were led into the cave and down into the depths of the mountain’s roots, a thousand of them shuffling toe to heel in the shifting darkness, lit by the pale illumination of the hand-powered flashlights carried by the red-robed Saviors.

Omar craned his head at the barely seen walls and ceilings of the caverns they passed through. The cave was frigid and damp, and he could not imagine this as his new home.

They would be safe here, they were told, and would be fed. But they must work. Life would be hard. Such was the price of survival.

And oh, they did work. Not at farming, technology, communications, or tending to the sick. No, they worked at one thing: mining for gold. Omar was a digger, excavating shafts and spiral tunnels. Others were muckers, removing blasted materials, or mixers, using cyanide to break down the ore. Some died from the poisonous fumes. Others were killed by cave-ins, vanished into unseen pits or crevices, or died of malnutrition or exhaustion. The “food,” if it could be called that, consisted of freeze dried meals, holding as much moisture and flavor as cave dust.

A few objected to the unceasing work and terrible food. One in particular, a young man named Javier, stirred up a fuss. One day the Saviors seized him. They held a public trial, declared Javier a traitor, and dropped him into a bottomless crevice that everyone called the Pit. After that no one complained.

Omar saw Samia from time to time. She was lucky enough to be a dowser – one of the gifted few who had the ability to find veins of gold. The only tool she used was a small candle floating in a bowl of water, which she carried with her. Somehow it worked. She was better fed than the others but still thin, all her baby fat gone, and her skin had a grayish tint that worried Omar.

One of Omar’s co-laborers, a former Ngäbe-Buglé leader by the name of Toribio, had broken a rib when a supporting beam snapped. Omar covered for him, working twice as hard, doing Toribio’s work as well as his own. In return, Toribio gave Omar an entire loaf of flatbread. Real bread! Omar could not imagine where it had come from, and Toribio would not say.

That night, Omar slinked stealthily into the women’s sleeping area, where he found Samia jammed into a too-small sleeping hole. He woke her with a hand over her mouth, and gave her the bread. Her eyes widened and she nodded, and Omar departed as silently as he had come.

Toribio’s broken rib must have punctured his lung, because his condition grew worse, until one morning he would not wake. He was barely breathing, and his skin was ashen. Omar knew what would happen. The Saviors would throw the wounded man into the pit. His eyes flicked to Toribio’s boots. Toribio was small, about the same size as Samia. He would not need the boots where he was going. Omar unlaced them and pulled them off, feeling like a criminal.

That night, he slipped into the women’s area and gave Samia the boots. But one of the women must have seen him and reported him, because the next morning the Saviors yanked him out of the work line and beat him with a stave, until he was bruised and bleeding everywhere.

Omar knew that something was not right. If the Saviors cared about saving anyone, they would not treat people so cruelly. Also, the Saviors claimed that they met with other survivor clans and traded the mined gold for supplies. But if that were true, then why were they eating dreck and wearing rags? Why did they sleep in tiny rock chambers that they dug out themselves with hand tools?

Above ground, they were told, the world was a ruin. The cities were destroyed, the forests burned, the air poisoned. Only in these depths was there any hope of survival. But Omar wondered… The Saviors were robust, not starving like everyone else. And what would a ruined world need with gold?

Late one night, Omar followed one of the Saviors. If he were caught he’d be publicly beaten, and might not survive. He followed at the edge of the man’s light as the red-robed overseer sneaked up a narrow tunnel that led to a locked door. Omar memorized the route, knowing that if he came this way alone he would do it in darkness. The man unlocked the door and slipped through. Omar could not follow.

The next day, as he was carrying a wheelbarrow full of unprocessed ore, he bumped into that same Savior. The ore tumbled out. The man shouted in rage and beat Omar with a stick, splitting his cheek and bruising his ribs. But Omar had what he wanted: he’d slipped the key out of the man’s pocket in the chaos.

Late that night he crept out of his sleeping chamber and traveled up the long corridor in pitch darkness, walking with his eyes closed, relying on memory. He reached the door, unlocked it, and found no more than a continuation of the tunnel. But… wasn’t there a whisper of a breeze? He continued. Was the tunnel rising? And the air… it was fresher. Now he saw light ahead, not bright but a lighter shade of darkness than the inky depths below.

The tunnel emerged into the vast openness of the surface world. It was night, and the stars shone blindingly in the sprawling firmament. Had the sky always been so vast? Omar could not remember. The air was rich with the scents of leaves and soil. A night bird called, and it was the sweetest thing Omar had ever heard. He felt something on his face, wiped it away, and realized he was weeping.

The area was forested, except for a paved road that disappeared into the trees, and a squat stone building with firelight flickering through the windows. Omar heard laughter. He eased forward and peered through a window. Inside was a beautiful dining room with a wide wooden table, colorful fabrics hanging on the walls, and logs burning in a fireplace. At the table sat eight Saviors. Omar recognized their faces, though they looked different without their red robes, which hung on hooks along one wall.

They were feasting on dishes that Omar remembered as if through a dream: whole roasted chickens, platters of fish stewed with vegetables, fresh salads, fried plantains, and sliced mangoes and pineapples. Omar’s mouth was instantly full of saliva. But he must return before someone spotted him. The Saviors would kill him if they caught him. He stopped only long enough to pick up a freshly fallen leaf and thrust it into his pocket.

Back in his sleeping chamber, his mind raced. The people would not believe him. Their obedience of the Saviors was absolute. Every day they were told that they would be dead without the overseers’ vision and guidance, that the surface world was a wasteland, and that only through labor could they be saved. If the people reported him to the Saviors, he would be cast into the Pit.

He could simply leave. The key was burning a hole in his pocket, demanding to be used. There was no need to remain in this tomb of horrors. But… he could not leave without Samia. The two of them hardly spoke. But they were connected in a way he could not explain.

The next night he returned to Samia’s sleeping chamber, knowing someone might see him and report him. It was a risk he must take. In whispers, he told Samia what he had discovered.

She was skeptical. “The surface world is a wasteland, Omar. You were only dreaming. Go away before you get us both in trouble.”

He showed her the leaf. Her eyes widened. She felt it tenderly, smelled it, even bit a piece off and chewed it. She began to weep silently. Finally she thrust the leaf back at him, her hand shaking. “I can’t. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in the Pit. It terrifies me. I can’t, Omar, I can’t. You go. At least one of us will be free of this nightmare. You leave.”

He silenced her with a finger on her lips. “Not without you,” he said softly. Then he departed as silently as he’d come. What could he do? Her fear was more real to her than his promise of freedom.

He hid the key beneath a stone in a disused mining tunnel, and went back to work. He would not abandon Samia. If she wanted to stay and be worked to death in this abyss, then he would do the same.

* * *

He woke with his hands clenched into fists. His heart felt like a withered leaf. Why was Samia so stubborn? Then relief washed over him as he realized it was only a dream. He was not a beaten-down, kidnapped laborer in an underground tomb.

How strange that Samia should appear in his dream. That had never happened before. The eerie thing was that even awake, he could not shake a sense of responsibility and guilt, as if he had truly abandoned some version of her, some alternate personality that existed in that mine, sleeping in a hole in the wall and slowly dying.

Snow in Fiji

After that movie night at his house, Omar had hoped that maybe he’d have actual friends at school. He’d be one of the “in crowd”. Especially now that Tameem and Basem were gone. But with Hani gone as well, Omar was the only boy left in his grade. There was no “crowd” left to be a part of.

Fiji snow globe Sure, the Muhammad sisters were cheery and kind. They brought him little gifts, like homemade cookies, and a snowglobe from Fiji, which was funny, since Omar was sure it had not snowed in Fiji in about five hundred million years. Nabila brought him sports jerseys, a Buffalo Bills baseball cap, and once even a cool pair of navy wraparound shades – all more sponsor swag.

But Halima was remote, finding excuses to avoid him. That stung. Not that he imagined she’d become his girlfriend. He knew that was not allowed in Islam. But when she smiled at him and made witty banter in her Colombian slang, he felt like he was drifting in a rowboat on a clear summer lake, and never wanted the moment to end.

The one time he gathered up the courage to ask Halima why she was so distant, she only smiled ruefully and said, “You’re out of my league, hermano.” Then she walked away. Omar assumed she was being sarcastic, and was actually telling him that she was out of his league. And of course she was right. Chastened, he left her in peace.

As for him and Samia, they mostly went back to ignoring each other. Omar appreciated the way she’d stayed by his side in the hospital, and her words of wisdom. But the two of them had never really been friends, unless you counted the way they’d pranked each other relentlessly when they were little. Samia was too much of a know-it-all for Omar’s taste.

Still, a string of odd incidents made him wonder. Once at lunchtime, a bottle of Pepsi that had been in his lunch bag exploded as he opened it, fountaining all over his face and shirt. Some kids laughed, while others were horrified, hurrying with napkins to help him clean up. What made Omar suspicious was that Samia, who sat at another table with her back to him, did not even turn to look.

Another time, when they sat for keyboarding class, Omar’s computer mouse would not work, no matter how much he jiggled it, unplugged it, and re-plugged it. Finally he turned it over, and saw that someone had stuck a post-it note over the optical sensor. Written on the note was, “HA HA HA.” Omar’s eyes shot to Samia. A Spanish speaker would have written, “JA JA JA.” Using the “h” gave the person away as a native English speaker. But Samia’s eyes were resolutely fixed on her computer screen.

Omar confronted Samia, who only rolled her eyelids and said, “Come on, Omar. That’s kid stuff.”

The Next Person Goes in the Garbage Can

In the middle of that eleventh grade year, a new boy named Fuad arrived to join Omar’s class. Omar was pleased to have another boy to keep him company, but Fuad was an odd duck. The Indian boy spoke in a heavy accent that Omar could barely understand, his eyeglasses were so thick you could see nothing but a blur behind them, and a mass of black hair always hung down over his eyes. He was physically awkward, and would sometimes rush out to the bathroom without even asking the teacher. A strange boy, altogether.

Lightning-scarred oak treeShortly after Fuad arrived, Omar overheard a few 12th graders making fun of him. They were both new kids whose parents had just moved to Panama. Mahboob, the leader, was a heavyset, full-cheeked Pakistani youth who looked more like a brown refrigerator than a high school student. He was known for being physically rough in football games. His sidekick, Asad, had a thin face that looked like a pressed Cuban sandwich, and a mass of curly hair much like Omar’s own.

Omar was sitting with his back against a tree in his usual spot on the yard, while the older boys sat at one of the nearby picnic tables. As Fuad walked past, Mahboob called out to him:

“Hey mophead! You’re so skinny, if we need to clean the floor we could hold you like a mop and use your hair.”

Mahboob grinned at his own joke, and Asad let out a high pitched, giggling laugh.

Fuad turned and said politely, “I beg your pardon? You are saying what about my hair?”

But Omar was already on his feet, striding quickly toward the boys, not even using his cane. He stopped in front of Mahboob and glared at the large youth. The hulking 12th grader could probably have picked up Omar and used him as a conga drum, and for a moment Mahboob looked as if he might be about to say something, but in the end he averted his gaze.

Omar had experienced this with all the kids since the dog attack. They held him in awe, or at the very least respected him. Though these two had not been hear last year, they must have heard about it.

Omar touched an index finger to his lips then pointed sharply with it – an Arab gesture he’d picked up during his years at IIAP. “Wallahi,” he growled, “the next person who bullies Fuad is going in the trash can. Try and see, if you don’t believe me.” He stared at each boy in turn, then walked away.

It wasn’t that he had any great fondness for Fuad. He barely knew him. But he’d been the victim of bullying for years while others stood by, and there was no way on Allah’s sweet earth that Omar was going to become one of those silent bystanders, letting apathy make him complicit in cruelty.

Apparently the bullies didn’t believe him.

The next day, after school dismissal, the Muhammad sisters’ mother, Sister Farida, had offered Omar a ride home. He was about to climb into their SUV when he realized he’d forgotten his homework folder in his desk. The 9th to 12th grade classrooms were located in an outbuilding behind the main building, flanking the basketball court. He went out there, retrieved the folder, and had just exited the classroom when he saw a drama developing between Fuad and the two older boys.

Fuad was apparently retrieving books from his locker. As he did, Mahboob and Asad stood behind him, blocking his way. The yard was mostly empty at that point, with only a few younger kids milling about, and no teachers. No one seemed to have noticed what was happening.

As he watched, Fuad said something to the boys and tried to walk away, but Mahboob stuck out a foot and tripped him. Fuad fell heavily on his face. His glasses skittered away, and his backpack opened, the books tumbling out.

The boys laughed. Omar saw Fuad put a hand to his mouth. It came away bloody.

Omar’s vision turned as red as a forest fire. His hands tightened into fists as he strode toward the bullies, not even hearing the clatter of his cane as it fell to the ground.

The look on his face must have been unmistakeable, because when Mahboob saw him coming he raised his hands in fists. His stance was terrible, however. He held his fists along the sides of his ears, as if he were one of the pre-Islamic Arabs trying not to hear the Quran. It was obvious he had no training.

Where the head goes, the body follows – one of the martial arts principles that Sensei Alan had drilled into him over the years. Omar could not lift Mahboob, but he could control the bigger boy’s head. Slapping Mahboob’s hands out of the way, he seized the boy’s hair in one hand and his throat in the other. Giving the twelfth grader no time to react, he used Mahboob’s head to drag him toward the trash can. Mahboob shouted, as did the others, but Omar paid no mind. With a heave, he chucked Mahboob headfirst into the trash barrel, which was brimming with the day’s food leftovers and chewed gum balls. The can could not hold him, and tipped over, dumping the trash onto Mahboob’s head.

Asad jabbed a finger at Omar. “You can’t do that!”

Omar seized the finger and bent it backwards, forcing Asad down to the ground, until he was lying on his stomach. Omar stepped on his neck. Mahboob was up by then, wet, sticky garbage clinging to his shirt and hair. His face was purple with rage and embarrassment. He and the other two boys glared at Omar. Comically, Mahboob took off his sandal and lifted it as if to slap Omar with it. Thank goodness he has no confidence, Omar thought. Or he would just pick me up and slam me.

“I can do this all day,” Omar said calmly. The red fog was gone. He knew what he had done, and didn’t care. Boys like this were wild dogs. His days of backing down to dogs were over. “So far it’s garbage and a bent finger. You want to move up to broken bones?” He turned a fierce stare onto Mahboob. Under the weight of his glare, the hefty boy dropped the sandal and slipped his foot back into it.

Asad screamed and thrashed beneath his foot. Omar removed his foot and stepped back.

“You know about those dogs that attacked me?”

“Yeah, we know!” Asad shouted as he rose to his feet. Tears filled his eyes. “So what?”

“You know what happened to them?”

“No.”

“They’re dead. If you bully Fuad again, I’ll come after you. You outnumber me, but I don’t stop. You’ll have to kill me, or I will kill you.”

Mahboob pointed a shaking finger at Omar, then – apparently remembering what had happened to Hamada – retracted it quickly. “You’re crazy!” he shouted. He turned away, and Asad followed. Mahboob kicked the basketball pole, then cried out in pain and limped on, pulling garbage out of his hair.

Someone touched his shoulder and Omar was surprised to find Fuad standing beside him. The boy had recovered his belongings. His lower lip was split, and he’d apparently wiped the blood away with his white school shirt. The bloodstains looked ghastly.

“You did not have to do that,” Fuad said. “But I thank you nonetheless.”

Omar suppressed a grin at Fuad’s oddly proper English. “It’s nothing.”

The main building’s back door opened, and Nabila stuck her head out. “Omar! We’re waiting for you.”

Omar slapped his forehead. He’d forgotten. Nodding goodbye to Fuad, he retrieved his cane and hustled out to the parking lot. As he settled himself in the van, Nadia said, “What took you so long? I’m writing a book called Rip Van Omar.”

“Oh.” Omar wiped sweat from his forehead. “I got caught in a parade.”

Neither a Miracle Nor a Brute

Omar was worried about the repercussions of the fight. He could be permanently expelled. Nothing happened, however. The other boys apparently did not report the incident. Still, word must have gotten out, because no one so much as spoke a slantwise word to Fuad after that.

Omar also noticed that the deference the other kids afforded him seemed to increase, to the point where he got more respect than the principal. Younger kids came running to him instead of a teacher when someone pushed them around. Some kids brought him fruit or chips. When he made his way down a crowded hallway it cleared in front of him.

Omar and Fuad began eating lunch together. Once Omar got used to the thick accent, he found Fuad to be smart and funny, though his sense of humor – all math and physics jokes – took some getting used to. (Two atoms are walking down the street. One says, “I think I lost an electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first one says, “Yes, I’m positive.”)

One weekend Fuad invited Omar to come to his house to play cards and have dinner. Omar didn’t know any card games, but he accepted. Aside from Fuad and his parents, there was a younger brother with equally thick hair and glasses – Omar had seen him at school, he was a fourth grader – and a little girl named Anika who continually charged around the apartment waving a toy lightsaber.

Indian rice and cauliflower dish When dinner was served, Omar started in on a dish of rice, stewed beef and cauliflower. He took two bites before his mouth began to burn. He gulped down water, but that only made it worse. His eyes began to water, and he was sure his face was cherry red.

Fuad’s mother was apologetic. In spite of Omar’s protests, she went into the kitchen and, ten minutes later, returned with a dish of rice and cauliflower sans spice. For the rest of the evening, nearly everyone teased him about his “tender tongue.” After dinner, Fuad taught him a game called hearts, then the entire family sat to play.

In the middle of the game, Fuad suddenly leaped up and rushed off to the bathroom. Omar laughed. “He does that at school too! Like it’s always an emergency.”

Fuad’s father, a gentle man with a thick moustache, touched Omar’s arm. “He has epilepsy. The medication stops the grand mal seizures, but he still gets petit mal attacks. He can feel them coming, so he runs away to hide. He’s very embarrassed by it.”

Omar was mortified. Fuad’s father must have seen that, because he touched Omar’s arm again. “You did not know. Fuad told us what you did for him. We are grateful.”

Omar visited Fuad many times after that. It was always the same: Fuad’s mom would make one meal for the family, and a separate meal for Omar. Then the family would either play cards, watch a movie or all go for a walk together.

Omar enjoyed these visits, but at the same time he felt like he did not belong. These people were part of something Omar had rarely seen: a happy family. The only other one he’d seen, in fact, was Tio Niko and Tia Teresa’s family. They at least were relatives, and were Panamanians, with all the familiarity, loudness and general nuttiness that implied. But Fuad’s family were polite and soft-spoken – even Anika, the sword wielder, who would charge around waving her lightsaber then lightly tap Omar on the shoulder and say, “Touché, dear sir.”

They were gentle, normal people. Omar had a feeling none had ever committed a violent act, or been a victim of one. Whereas his own life had been immersed in violence for years. His father’s murder. Nemesio beating him. Sparring in karate class. The dog attack. The mugging. He couldn’t escape it. When he sat with Fuad’s family he felt like a fraud. His voice was too loud, his hands too rough, his scars too visible. He was a brute, and he did not belong.

At times, during these visits, Omar felt almost overwhelmed by these feelings. When that happened, he often remembered Samia saying, “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Sometimes the memory of these words would bring tears to his eyes, and he would excuse himself and go to the bathroom to wash his face. As strange as this was to admit, a part of him felt like if anyone truly understood him, it was Samia. He didn’t think he was truly a miracle, as she claimed. But maybe he was not a brute either. Maybe he was something in the middle. Maybe he was just human.

A Lifeline in a Choppy Sea

Aside from the persistent, low-level pain from his injuries – particularly in his left leg, which had actually been broken by the dogs’ teeth – he felt better this year than at any time since his father’s death. Still, there were times when he was dizzied by all the changes, and fell into sadness. Part of him missed having Hani around, exchanging banter with Halima, and practicing karate.

And as crazy as it was, he almost – almost – felt like he missed the abuse and bullying he’d been subjected to. He felt baffled and angry at himself for feeling this way, and cursed himself for being an idiot. What was wrong with him? But the thing was, as terrible as the last four years had been, the viciousness had given his life purpose. Every day he’d awakened and known that the day would be a battle, and he could rely on no one but himself to survive it. Whether it meant keeping his head down and hiding, or turning himself into a stone, so that nothing affected him, his mission was to get through the day without letting it break him. He even missed having to run away to Tia Teresa and Tio Niko’s house when the abuse became intolerable. The constant struggle had defined him.

Now, he felt directionless. There were his studies, sure. And he helped his mom with Puro Panameño after school, boxing products and printing shipping labels. But what was he really doing? Where was he going? He’d never had the luxury of being able to think about these things before.

He’d always been attentive to his salat, but not rigorously so, and had often missed prayers. Now, though, he found himself turning to the salat as if to a lifeline thrown to an overboard sailor in a choppy sea. It wasn’t a conscious choice. The salat reminded him of his days as a small child, when his father had taught him what to say and how to move. It was a respite from confusion. A few still, calm moments in which he knew once again who he was:  not an abused boy entering each new day like a soldier at war, but a servant of Allah, a worshiper, and a member of a nation of 1.5 billion souls. If he had a mission and a purpose, then it must be tied to that, because in the end, nothing else was real.

Love Letter

The year went by, and the next. Every two or three months there would be a new prank. He did not feel bullied by them, though. They were a mystery to be solved. But in two years he never discovered the perpetrator.

He graduated high school with high honors. The scars on his face were much less noticeable, though his ear would always be disfigured. He’d pushed himself with physical therapy and had resumed karate class, though he had to make adjustments. He could not kick with his left leg, for example, and found himself relying more on hand techniques. Sparring was out of the question. He no longer needed a cane, but still walked with a limp.

His mother’s company, Puro Panameño, now had a small warehouse space on the Transistmica, and two full-time employees. Omar worked there part time, taking customer service calls. The customers were almost all women, and the regulars got to know him by name. Some had seen him on TV. They’d ask about his life, and flirt with him in the harmless way many Panamanian women did.

Pink envelope On the last day of school, Halima gave him a small golden envelope, telling him to open it at home. Later, sitting on the edge of his bed, he opened it to find an ornately folded letter. When he unfolded it, a pressed rose fell out. He picked it up, set it on the bed and began to read the  handwritten letter:

I’m sorry that I have not been friendly the last few years. After the Day of the Dogs, I found myself thinking of you all the time, and I had to admit to myself that I loved you. I have never known anyone so strong, brave and smart like you. And not only because of what you did that day. Even before that, I knew your life wasn’t easy, and I admired the way you never let anyone stop you from advancing.

I never told you this because there’s no point. I know you would not want to do anything haram, and I feel the same. Now my father is sending me to Universidad Nacional de Colombia, his alma mater. I will live with my aunt. So I will never see you again. Besides, I’m not good enough for you. I never was. Take care of yourself. I will always remember you.

Your dear friend,
Halima

Omar was stunned. Never in his wildest imaginings would he have thought Halima had such feelings for him. And what did she mean that she was not good enough for him? He wanted to rush to her house and say, “No, don’t leave, you are good enough for me. I love you too!” But did he actually love her? He wasn’t sure he knew what love was.

Sure, there was the Hollywood version where two people were caught up in a wonderful, heated passion. Those romances always ended in disaster, at least in the movies. One of them killed the other, or one was a con artist, or an undercover cop. Then there was the version where the straight-laced, boring man fell in love with the mad, hot, out-of-control woman. That didn’t seem to apply. Oh yeah, and the one where one of the pair was not who they were portraying to be. The prince who pretended to be a commoner, or the college professor who was mistaken for a spy. Omar didn’t see how any of those related to his situation.

He liked Halima for sure, but love? He guessed not. Plus, she was leaving, and it was probably true that they’d never see each other again. Shaking his head, he let out a perplexed sigh. Life was confusing. At times like this he wished his father was alive.

He slid the letter and rose back into the envelope, stuck it in the bottom of a shoebox that contained miscellaneous old letters and postcards, and did his best to forget it.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 8:  Rich and Poor

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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Podcast: The Fiqh of FIFA | Mufti Hussain Kamani

Zeba Khan

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It’s estimated that 3 billion people play some sort of video game, whether on a computer, console, or smart phone.  For the millions of Muslims included in this number, what’s the halal and haram of this? Is gaming a good thing? When is gaming a bad thing?

“I know a lot of kids in our community who play Minecraft to develop skills. I respect that because it’s now a tool being used for their education.” -Mufti Hussain Kamani

In this podcast, Zeba Khan talks to Mufti Hussain Kamani, a hafiz, scholar, and -surprise!- gamer, about the Islamic perspective on gaming, entertainment, and the fiqh of FIFA loot boxes.

“Do loot boxes and their contents carry any value or not? Is there a monetary value to that Messi card? If it’s all ones and zeros then you can’t technically classify that as gambling, but I believe that’s too simplistic. We live in a world of cryptocurrency. There are things that carry value beyond physical objects.” – Mufti Hussain Kamani

Is gaming halal? Are lootboxes haram? Does Mufti Hussain Kamani play FIFA, and can I join his league? Click To Tweet
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Then and Now: Rereading Mohja Kahf’s “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”

Zainab (AnonyMouse)

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In 2007, at the brash, naive, and frankly moronic age of 16, I penned a scathing review of Mohja Kahf’s novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” for this very website, MuslimMatters.org. Thirteen years later, I read it again – only to find myself deeply, utterly in love with this book.

Khadra Shamy is the American daughter of Syrian immigrants, Wajdy and Ebtahaj, who dreamt of little more than dedicating themselves to the Da’wah in their tiny Muslim community in Indiana. Khadra grows up immersed in the culture of conservative da’wah: of the Deen being black and white, of certain rules followed scrupulously, of culture frowned upon in exchange for the purity of Islam. As she moves from a 10 year old child overwhelmed with guilt for accidentally eating gelatin-containing candy corn, to a black-clad, angry teenager who reads Qutb and supports the Iranian Revolution, to a college student who dutifully marries young, Khadra finds the foundations of her worldview slowly cracking. 

Going for Hajj was not spiritually revolutionary, but a dark glimpse of what Arab youth get up to in the heartland of Islam; after devoting herself to tajweed and hifdh, Khadra is told that she must stop reciting Qur’an in mixed gatherings and that Qur’an competitions are only open to men. Her ideal Islamic marriage begins to crumble when her husband evokes the Qawwam card to prohibit her from riding her bike in public – and when she gets pregnant, only to decide on an abortion, and then a divorce, Khadra creates a schism between herself, her community, and all that she has known. In the years that follow, Khadra breaks down and recreates her identity as a Muslim and her beliefs about Islam. 

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In many ways, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is both a love letter and a breakup note to conservative Muslims. Kahf’s book traces, with intimate authenticity, what it is to be a Western-raised child of parents immersed in the Da’wah; our quirks and eccentricities and ties to a back home culture that we don’t always understand; our hidden hypocrisies and our secret shames. She breathes into words the tenderness of our bonds of faith, the flames of our religious passion, the complexities of our relationships. She knows who we are, how we are, and she speaks to us in our own words. Perhaps ahead of her time, she gently forces Muslim readers to confront the issues of intra-Muslim racism, of the history of Blackamerican Muslims, of the naive arrogance of immigrant Muslims, of the almost insurmountable distance between the theory of Islam for Muslim women, and the reality of what Muslim women experience.

Of course, it comes with a price. Kahf ends her novel by having Khadra follow the by-now-predictable trajectory that we have seen from many Muslims of a progressive bent: Sufism is the only acceptable fluffy-enough type of Islam; all paths, even outside of Islam, lead to God; conservative Muslims are embarrassing, suffocating, and are holding their communities back from true spiritual enlightenment. To be fair, Kahf doesn’t hold back from pointing out the hypocrisies of secular liberal types either, and she is far softer and more tender in her portrayals of conservatives as well. 

It is worth taking a closer look at how Kahf chose to take Khadra down the path of progressiveness. Khadra’s story is a mirror of so many true stories, of children from religious families whose resentment over their experiences pushed them to choose an easier way, one less rooted in following Shari’ah and more a vague idea of spirituality. This narrative portrays turning progressive as the only logical conclusion to such experiences, which is in itself deeply problematic. In truth, there are many Muslims – born Muslims and converts alike – who have suffered far worse than merely restrictive upbringings, or unhappy marriages, and who have chosen instead to commit themselves even more determinedly to orthodoxy. Spirituality is not the sole domain of Sufis or liberals; it is part and parcel of Islam itself, even in its most conservative form. To imply otherwise is a dishonesty that is found all too often amongst those who have their own biases and agendas against any form of Islam that does not feel flexible enough for their own tastes.

As a particularly ridiculous 16-year-old Salafi, I was too consumed in my outrage at Khadra leaving the aqeedah of Ahlus Sunnah wa’l Jamaa’ah, and too busy agreeing with her ex-husband on the inappropriateness of Muslim women riding bikes in public, to understand or appreciate this deeply emotional journey. Fast forward 13 years, and 29-year-old me identifies far more with Khadra than my past self could ever have imagined. Little had I known, that first time, that I too would experience what Khadra and so many other Muslim women have: the painfully cliche toxic marriage to controlling Muslim men who use Islam to suffocate our souls and our spirits. (But really, 16yo Zainab??? You legit thought that Khadra’s husband was justified in stopping her from riding her bike??? You almost deserved going through practically the same thing, you idiot.)

Rereading The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as an adult, having lived through my own traumas and growth, through spiritual crisis and rediscovery, was a very different experience. My own upbringing was very similar to Khadra’s: in a religious da’wah bubble, surrounded by an insistence on Islamic ideals, blithely ignoring Muslim realities (and occasionally denying them outright). The self righteous ignorance in my 2007 review has me dying a thousand deaths of mortification, and I am all too aware of just how much like teenaged Khadra I was back then. Thirteen years later, my cynicism knows no bounds, my bitterness sours all idealism, and I feel a deep urge to slap my past self upside the head. There’s some Divine irony in all of this, I suppose; certainly, it is cause for reflection on the value of personal growth and maturity, of how the years and one’s experiences can turn one into the very person they once derided. I relate far more to Khadra today than my teenaged self could ever have imagined, and in many ways, I only wish that I could have retained the blithe innocence (if not the ignorance) that I once had in abundance. Following Khadra on her journey was to retrace my own steps, to remember precisely how and when I, too, made the choice to become someone new.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim.Click To Tweet

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim. Kahf does not waste time explaining things to a non-Muslim audience, nor does she hold back from dishing out hard truths to Muslim readers. She knows us, inside and out, and it is this startling familiarity that pulls one in and doesn’t let go until we find ourselves shocked that we’ve reached the end of the book. In the era of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Mohja Kahf was undoubtedly a pioneer in the field of diverse fiction.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a damned good book – one that will have you blinking away furious tears and lay awake at night, feeling your heart ache with unforgotten, unseen bruises.

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